Whitsun Adjournment

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:13 pm on 23rd May 2019.

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Photo of Ian Mearns Ian Mearns Chair, Backbench Business Committee, Chair, Backbench Business Committee 2:13 pm, 23rd May 2019

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered matters to be raised before the forthcoming adjournment.

It is always a privilege to lead such debates as Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, not least at the moment, as I am delighted to have the opportunity to talk about something other than our withdrawal from the European Union. I promise not to utter the B-word in the Chamber this afternoon. Instead, I will use the next few minutes to remind you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and colleagues on both sides of the House why I represent the best constituency in the United Kingdom, with a few policy complaints thrown in.

I can say with absolute certainty that austerity is not over in Gateshead. Despite the Government’s proclamations to the contrary in recent months, and despite their promise to shake the magic money tree for the north-east of England, we have seen more damaging cuts coupled with welfare reforms and chronic, continually rising unemployment in my constituency. I say that advisedly. Unemployment in my constituency now stands at 7.2%, and it has risen month on month every month without fail. There are 470 more unemployed individuals that at the same time last year, so unemployment has not gone away in the north-east of England.

We see local authorities being forced to turn away vulnerable people from their doors. In my constituency, the employees of social housing providers are creating their own ad hoc, unofficial food banks to help tenants who simply cannot make ends meet.

I am not sure whether we should be delighted that the UN rapporteur on extreme poverty, Professor Philip Alston, chose to visit Newcastle and Gateshead while gathering evidence. Believe me, we would much prefer not to be of interest to an investigation into extreme poverty. None the less, it was finally an opportunity for members of the communities I serve—those communities are bearing the brunt of successive Government policies—local authorities and voluntary organisations to share their experiences with officials from outside the region who care enough to listen.

The report, published yesterday, is a damning indictment of how this Government treat some of their citizens and of how they view their role in office. Sadly, nothing in Professor Philip Alston’s report should come as a surprise to Members. Opposition Members have repeatedly highlighted how this Government are driving constituents into abject poverty while slashing the support services that were once available to help the most vulnerable.

We have just had a great debate about Yemen. It is ironic that Ministers are quite happy to accept UN evidence on Yemen but are openly dismissive of an objective UN report on what is happening here in terms of domestic policy. That is rather strange. This is, and rightly should be, a national embarrassment. How many more of our constituents will be starved and frozen out of their homes before this Government decide to change course?

I believe that the existing council tax system contributes to the difficulties of local authorities like mine in Gateshead when it comes to raising enough money to meet increasing demand. The system is flawed and requires urgent reform to establish some equality across the UK.

The vast majority of properties in my Gateshead constituency—over 70%—are in council tax bands A and B, unlike in some parts of the south-east, where the average banding is C, D or, in some cases, E. Having a high proportion of band A and B properties significantly reduces how much money can be raised through the council tax system. As a direct result, Gateshead Council has no alternative but to continually raise council tax by the highest percentage allowed. That, in turn, has resulted in Gateshead having one of the country’s most expensive council tax bills for band A properties.

In Gateshead, it costs nearly four times more in council tax to live in a one-bedroom band A flat than it costs to live in a band D property here in Westminster, which is clearly unfair. The system is punitive, outdated and regressive, and it should be replaced at the earliest opportunity. Withdrawing the revenue support grant without reforming and amending the council tax side of the local government funding system is causing hardship and suffering to our constituents, and it must be considered almost criminal because of the way in which it impacts on individuals

We have now had council tax for almost 30 years—let us remember that it was meant to be a temporary stopgap after getting rid of the poll tax, or the community charge, as it was known—and it does not work. The band D national median is meaningless in a place like Gateshead. Unilaterally taking away the revenue support grant without altering the other side of the system was a harsh decision that has clearly affected some areas much more than others.

I promised some positivity, and I realise that my speech so far has set out a pretty bleak picture, so let me say that despite revenue support grant cuts of more than £100 million per year, my local authority continues to promote Gateshead as a great place to live, work and invest. Gateshead Council has already attracted hundreds of millions of pounds in investment in recent years. It has ambitious plans for further investment of £1.5 billion in the next 10 to 15 years, starting with ambitious plans for Gateshead quays and the Baltic quarter to develop a major new state-of-the-art conference centre and performance arena. There are to be exciting ancillary facilities and, we hope, even a new railway station to service the development, as well as our excellent and outstanding Gateshead College.

I am proud to have been a member of Gateshead Council for 27 years during our process of moving the borough forward on a long line of flagship projects: the iconic Sage Gateshead; the turning of the Baltic flour mill into a gallery of contemporary art; and our Gateshead millennium bridge across the Tyne to the village across the river. Members on both sides of the House will recognise the importance of sensitive investment and development in our communities, and how that often acts as a driver for regeneration. We have a long-standing flagship projects policy that started in the 1970s with the Gateshead stadium and Brendan Foster. Who could ever forget the way in which we turned Gateshead into a hub of athletics? We were an exemplar of Britain in bloom. We built the Metrocentre, with John Hall and Cameron Hall Developments. We turned the old Derwenthaugh coke works site into a wonderful country park. We built our civic centre in Gateshead, which was a huge success because we brought the project in vastly under budget, meaning that the residue of the development grant we got from Government, via Lord Bellwin, was then used as a sort of development fund. That allowed us to do so many different things. We turned Saltwell park, an ageing Victorian municipal park, into “the people’s park”, and it became the favourite park in the north of England—it was voted the best park in Britain on two occasions. We also developed Gateshead quays, built the Angel of the North and redeveloped Gateshead town centre.

Although members of my political persuasion believe that investment for regeneration should come directly from Government, because that works, I also recognise that there is more chance of me watching Newcastle United win the premier league next year than this Government changing course on public investment in the regeneration of areas in the north-east of England, which, sadly, continue to be left behind, as the unemployment statistics show graphically. If any Member has a spare million or two burning a hole in their pockets, I would be delighted to welcome them to Gateshead for a look around, to meet the people and see the massive potential that exists—they will be given a very warm welcome and be under no illusion that it is a great place to work, invest and live.

As I touched upon earlier, council tax takes up an ever-increasing proportion of people’s income. We have all seen the reports of local authorities pursuing residents through the courts with bailiffs to recover insignificant sums of outstanding tax, adding significant charges and fees—and misery—in the process. I am therefore delighted to talk about the excellent work that my local authority is doing to identify and support some of our most vulnerable residents. The Thrive initiative uses council tax arrears as one of the trigger points for increased support. If residents fall into arrears with council tax, it is often a tell-tale sign that there may be other significant issues on which they need support. As a result, instead of multiplying debt through the recovery process and causing no end of distress to constituents, the Thrive team in Gateshead contacts residents who fall into arrears to offer them additional support.

We know all too well that very often those in our communities who are most in need are the least likely to seek help or even to know where to go to for help. The Thrive initiative does that work for them: it reaches out and tries to engage proactively with residents who may be having difficulties, with the aim of preventing the situation deteriorating. Not only is this holistically an excellent initiative—giving assistance before people reach the point of crisis—but it is actually beneficial to the people themselves and financially beneficial to the council. So I congratulate Gateshead Council on developing such schemes in the most difficult economic circumstances.

I feel that I have spoken for long enough but, although this does not directly affect my constituency, it would be remiss of me not to mention the ongoing abandonment of British Steel. We wish every success to all initiatives to try to retain steel production in this country, as this is so vital. While I was growing up, I watched deindustrialisation along the Tyne, with the loss of shipbuilding and heavy engineering, and the closure of coal mines, so we need to do something to retain a strategically vital industry here in Britain. Time and time again, we have seen Governments allow the deindustrialisation of the north of England, which has devastating long-term effects on communities, some of which will never recover. It is about time that industries that are vital to not only our economy nationally, but our local economies, workers and their families across the UK, were afforded the same protections as those in the square mile in the City of London. We managed to find £500 billion to bail out the City after the financial crash, so we must be able to find a few hundred million pounds to save vital industries for the future strategic interest of our country.

Mr Deputy Speaker, I wish you, Members on both sides of the House and all staff a very restful Whitsun—we all deserve it.